Given his ever-growing posthumous popularity, fueled by material newly discovered, released, and re-released, we might call Arthur Russell the 2Pac of experimental disco cello. During his short life, he managed to collaborate with the likes of Philip Glass, Nicky Siano, Walter Gibbons, and even David Byrne. A little-heard version of the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” featuring Russell’s cello has recently resurfaced (above), to the delight of both Heads fans intrigued to hear one more slant on a favorite song and listeners newly intrigued by Russell looking to hear how his sound interfaced with the innovative pop music of his day.
In the clip just above, you can hear Byrne discuss the collaborative development of “Psycho Killer” (albeit well before the recording of this B-side with Russell) at a Q&A session on his How Music Works book tour. Unbelievably, the song first emerged as a ballad. “I can see the song as being softer,” he says. “I’m making it aggressive-sounding and thought, ‘That’s like saying the same thing twice.’ Which the singer of the song says you shouldn’t do. I thought it would be creepier, actually scarier, if you downplay it. But, you know, we had a rock band at the time; we got together, started playing it, and that’s not how it came out. Audiences liked the big chorus everyone could sing along with.” I imagine they also would’ve liked the big string instrument Russell would have brought up on stage, had he ever had the chance to join the Heads for a live performance.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.